New York Times bestselling author and Tampa Bay Times reporter Craig Pittman is this week’s featured guest. In our conversation, we talk about Craig’s latest book Oh, Florida!: How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country. We also talk about Florida’s unique environment and Craig shares some of his favorite Florida stories.
Chris Cate: Welcome to the Fluent in Floridian podcast featuring the Sunshine State’s brightest leaders talking about the issues most important to the people of Florida and it’s millions of weekly visitors. I’m your host Chris Cate and in this episode brought to you by Salter Mitchell PR I talk to Tampa Bay Times reporter and New York Times best-selling author Craig Pittman whose latest book is called “Oh Florida!: How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country.” In our conversation [00:00:30] we’ll talk about how our weird state influences the country, about out state’s unique environment, and about his favorite Florida stories. And you can hear it all right now.
Thanks for being on the show Craig. You’re a perfect guest to talk about Florida because you seem to know the good, bad, and weird side of our state better than anyone. So, how do you describe Florida to someone who has never been here before?
Craig Pittman: I always tell people it’s the most interesting state in the union. We’ve got [00:01:00] an abundance of beauty here. We’ve got these beautiful springs, we’ve got the gorgeous beaches, the lovely sunrises and sunsets, the aware-winning state parks, and of course we have an abundance of the bizarre here. We’ve got more fake dinosaurs here than anywhere else. We’re the only state government where the list of government jobs includes mermaid because of the Weeki Wachee attraction. And we constantly have these great stories coming out of [00:01:30] here about people chasing each other around with machetes and just other kinds of craziness going on. So, there’s never anything dull about Florida, that’s for sure. And frankly I love it here, I wouldn’t live anywhere else.
Chris Cate: I know from your books that you grew up in Pensacola. So can you give me an idea of what life was like for you as a kid back in the pre-Disney days of Florida?
Craig Pittman: Well, it was an interesting time. I spent a lot of time … I was in Boy Scouts and my dad [00:02:00] would take me hunting and fishing too so I spent a lot of time out in the woods or on the water, and really enjoyed that and didn’t understand then that these were really special places and possibly imperiled places that were worth saving. I didn’t really catch onto that until my great aunt introduced me to John D. MacDonald’s work. And I started reading those books, suddenly realizing hey, this is a pretty special place. But it was a place [00:02:30] where we had Navy planes flying overhead all day long and then at night we had fireflies, at least until the mosquito control trucks came by billowing pesticide out the back and, of course then the kids on bikes riding behind and taking in big lungfuls of the stuff. But always that little edge of weirdness on things. You couldn’t get away from it even then.
For instance, my Scout troupe, we did a thing where we were [00:03:00] city councilmen for a day. We actually went and tagged along with a city councilman and it just so happened that the day that all these little Boy Scouts were there at city council chambers the day they were debating whether or not to allow the civic auditorium to put on a production of “Oh! Calcutta!” So, there was this huge turnout of ministers and people complaining about nudity on stage. And boy, that was the most exciting city council I’ve ever been to, especially when you’re a kid and you probably have never heard of this stuff before. I mean, it was always that kind of entertaining [00:03:30] side to things.
Chris Cate: So how did you grow into a storyteller?
Craig Pittman: A lot of it is that southern story-telling tradition. I always joked that my mom taught me to appreciate a good book and my dad taught me to appreciate a good story. I’d go hunting with him and he and his buddies were all telling these outrageous stories and cracking each other up. So, a lot of that was just listening in and marveling at how exaggerated they could get with things. [00:04:00] And then it sort of translated into, since mom was introducing me to all these great authors, into wanting to be a writer myself and get some of this stuff down in print so other people could enjoy it.
Chris Cate: And, like you said, there really is no shortage of weird stories here in Florida.
Craig Pittman: No, absolutely not.
Chris Cate: Do you think … So many people talk about Florida being a weird state and it’s kind of fun when we say it, but do you think it’s the same when somebody who’s never been here calls Florida weird? Do you get a little bit sensitive about that? Or do you [00:04:30] think Florida really deserves its reputation as a weird state?
Craig Pittman: Well, that’s kind of the point I was trying to make with the book, which is we’re not just the punch line state. I mean, weird, crazy, wild stuff happens here. But also some of that weird, crazy, wild stuff that happens here influences the rest of the country. They may not even realize it. And so I try and make the point of, you know, the guy who invented the computer grew up here. His dad was a phosphate mining engineer who always carried a slide rule and so young John Atanasoff became fascinated by his dad’s slide rule and that set him [00:05:00] on the course to inventing the computer. So, I always tell people, the next time you’re watching your cat videos on YouTube say a prayer of thanks to John Atanasoff. And there are lots of other instances that I give in the book of things that happened here. Some of them weird and crazy things involving crooked cops and people with mafia connections, and so forth, that ultimately led to things happening that influenced the rest of the country.
There’s a documentary filmmaker in Miami, Billy Corben, who [00:05:30] jokes that he’s copyrighted the phrase “there’s always a Florida connection.” And he’s right, there is. There’s almost a Florida connection to something that’s going on in America and has had some influence on it somewhere.
Chris Cate: I figure you get asked this all the time, but do you have a favorite story or two that you’ve come across over the years that really epitomized Florida for you?
Craig Pittman: People always ask me if there’s an ultimate Florida story. And I always tell them that the ultimate Florida story hasn’t happened yet because we haven’t quite hit that combination of alligators, [00:06:00] machetes, meth, nudity, etc., to reach critical mass for the ultimate Florida story. But we’ve got a few that I always like to mention, that if we had a Weird Florida Hall of Fame these would be on display in the hall of fame and may be the first class to get elected. Probably number one of those would be the one about the guy who claimed he was a Count down in Key West. He was more a no-account. He worked as an X-ray [00:06:30] technician, Carl Tanzler. This was in 1930, and he fell in love with one of his patients and his love for her transcended death. By which I mean after she died he dug up the body and lived with it for nine years until her sister found out and reported him to the authorities. So he was, of course, arrested and put on trial. But he was acquitted because the statute of limitations had run out.
Chris Cate: Wow! I don’t know how [00:07:00] to react to that story.
Craig Pittman: That’s probably the right way to react.
Chris Cate: And I love following you on Twitter too, because you always seem to find those great stories and sometimes the weird stories about Florida. Are you just always on the lookout for them, or how do come across so many of these great Florida stories?
Craig Pittman: Oh, sure. I try and scan the state’s front pages every day and people send me stuff. There are several blogs I check. [00:07:30] Barbara Hijek at the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel has the FloriDUH blog that she posts stuff on. Will Greenlee who is the police reporter at tcpalm.com, he has an off the beat column where he posts stuff. And then on Reddit there’s a subcategory for FloridaMan so I check that regularly. FARK has a Florida section, I check that. And then The Smoking Gun seems to love us quite a bit, too, so I’ll check them as well. So, I mean, those are most [00:08:00] of my sources. But like I said, a lot of times people will just send me stuff and say, “Hey, did you see this? Hey, did you see that?” And half the time, no, I hadn’t seen it. ‘Cause Florida is such a big and diverse state withy so many different news sources to choose from that it’s impossible to keep up with all of it. And so sometimes I don’t see stuff until three or four days after it has happened.
Chris Cate: When you’re considering story ideas for the Times there in Tampa, are there particular environmental topics that you’re drawn to the most?
Craig Pittman: The ones I [00:08:30] particularly like are the ones that nobody’s writing about. I like to be the first one to tackle them. I mean, I was the first one, for instance, to write about how the state’s sea cucumbers were being depleted because people in Asia thought they were aphrodisiacs. And I think I did the first story on the state buying and training dogs to sniff out giant African land snails that were rampaging, very slowly, across Miami-Dade [00:09:00] county, making us the only state with snail-sniffing dogs. So that’s something to be proud of too. I mean, I particularly liked those. And that’s led to some big projects too. Another report, Matt White, and I did a big series about Florida’s vanishing wetlands where we looked at … we pulled satellite imagery for the whole state for 1990 and then compared it to what it was like for when we were doing the story, to say this is where the wetlands were and this is where those wetlands have been paved over now and this is how many acres have been lost [00:09:30] by permitted destruction of the wetlands.
And so that turned into a really good, useful, important thing to write about and it was something nobody else had tackled before because, it frankly was just too big and complicated an issue. But we were able to do it. And the Times gave us the time and the technology in order to pull that off. And that ultimately led to my first book “Paving Paradise.”
Chris Cate: That’s great. And when you write a story like that are you able to kind of see the fruit of that work, where [00:10:00] you can tell more people are paying attention to that issue and you start seeing changes happen as a result of it, and maybe can even give an update. Since you’ve written that story, how has that story progressed for you?
Craig Pittman: That story was both heartening and not so much because on the one hand the regulatory agency, the US Army Corps of Engineers, as far as I can tell hasn’t changed anything about the way they issue those permits. They are still saying yes to as many of them as they possibly [00:10:30] can, and no to hardly any, and just cranking them out without much thought about the cumulative impact.
On the other hand, after the story came out, we were deluged with calls, emails, letters from people saying, “I had no idea that the regulatory agencies don’t protect our wetlands. We’ll be on guard for this now.” And in fact there was a zoning hearing that came up here in St. Petersburg right after the series ran, where WalMart wanted to build on this property that was covered in mangroves. And people showed up at the zoning board hearing waving our stories and saying, ” [00:11:00] We have to stop this at this point because, according to these stories, once it gets past the zoning board level it’s gone. We can’t count on the state or the Feds to say no to this stuff, because their attitude is, if it passed the zoning board, we should say yes to it as well.” So, they actually blocked this zoning change that WalMart wanted and kept that property in mangroves, kept is as a wetland.
Chris Cate: Yeah, that’s a good point. So, what can everyday Floridians, like the people that are listening to this podcast [00:11:30] right now, do to help protect Florida’s environment, because there are so many different issues? But where can people get plugged in to make a difference?
Craig Pittman: My advice to them is just stay informed on the issues. Read the paper every day, watch the news, see what’s going on. And if there are particular groups that seem to be active on issues that you care about, join those groups, see what they’re about, see if they’re worth volunteering with. There are a number of groups out there that are [00:12:00] active on issues. They may not be very well funded but they run on lots of volunteers. That’s sort of the way our democracy is set up, is that it depends on an informed electorate. So people need to get informed, that’s the bottom line.
Chris Cate: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I want to close with our final four questions that I ask every guest. So, you ready for these? These should be hopefully fun and easy for you.
Craig Pittman: Okay. It’s not the lightning round is it? [00:12:30] I don’t have to [crosstalk 00:12:31]
Chris Cate: No, I don’t have a clock on you.
Craig Pittman: Okay, all right.
Chris Cate: Who is a Florida leader that you admire? And it can be someone from Florida history or someone still active in their work.
Craig Pittman: One that I turn to an awful lot for … well, there are a couple of them that I turn to an awful lot for advice and ideas, and so forth, are a pair of historians. One is Gary Mormino who recently retired from the University of South Florida, and who wrote this terrific book called “Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams” [00:13:00] which is all about the sort of social history of Florida. And I learned and continue to learn so much from Gary and from his work, and he’s been very, very helpful to me. Before I wrote of Florida I sat down with him and with this other historian and talked over what topics I ought to cover. And the other one is Jim Clark who’s at the University of Central Florida and started out like I did, as a reporter. He was a reporter/columnist and so forth, worked for the Orlando Sentinel, then made the jump into academia as a historian.
And [00:13:30] both of them have published quite a few books, and both of them are very accessible and they’re not … you know, you have this image of the professor as this guy stuck in an ivory tower. But these are both guys who see things at street level and they can talk at that level as well. And they’ve just been an enormous help to me. I wish everyone had as good a set of mentors as I’ve had.
Chris Cate: Yeah, those sound like great guys. What is your favorite Florida location to visit? And [00:14:00] this can be a city, a restaurant, a beach, or whatever you like. So, what is a favorite Florida location to visit for you?
Craig Pittman: I really love going to the beach, just about any beach. I always say I’m a beach baby because I grew up going to the beach when I was a kid. I’ve always said I started out with sand in my diapers when I was little. And to me that’s the greatest thing about Florida, is we’re never very far from a beach and can always go there and listen to the sound of [00:14:30] the surf and pick up seashells and realize how connected we are to the rest of the world.
Chris Cate: Yeah, that’s cool. Do you have a favorite sports team?
Craig Pittman: Sort of. I have a hat from my hometown minor league baseball team, which I think has the greatest baseball team name of all time, they’re the Pensacola Blue Wahoos. I’ve never seen ’em play, I’d love to. But I just love that name and so my wife arranged for me to get one of their hats for [00:15:00] Christmas one year. And it’s this great big fish leaping across the front of the hat. Now, I used to be a big fan of the Brevard Manatees, but I understand that they changed their name to the Brevard Fire Frogs, which just doesn’t make any sense to me at all.
Chris Cate: Was there a reason they changed it from the Manatees, is it just not a very intimidating animal, the Manatees?
Craig Pittman: No, they’re not. Maybe that was why. Maybe they figured some people are squeamish about frogs and if the frogs were on fire that would be even more intimidating. I don’t know. They [00:15:30] didn’t consult me.
Chris Cate: Well, finally in this group of four questions. Who is a Florida person, place, or thing that deserves more positive attention in Florida?
Craig Pittman: I mentioned in the book that there’s this guy that we should all venerate, because he basically changed things for every Floridian and for people all over the country because he got copied. And that is a former state senator named Emory “Red” Cross, Red was [00:16:00] his nickname. Emory Cross was the guy who sponsored the Government in the Sunshine Law, and worked for 10 years to get it passed, constantly getting slapped back, couldn’t even get a committee hearing at first. And he finally pushed it through because he was so outraged that his colleagues in the legislature were getting tipped off as to where the route of Interstate 75 was going to go and then buying up property, and then making a big profit off of it. He said, “You know, the public needs to know about this stuff. The public needs to know how its tax dollars are being spent and how [00:16:30] the government works.” And so he finally was able to succeed in getting the sunshine law passed, and it became enormously influential across the rest of the country.
And every year the legislature kind of chips away at the sunshine law, but it’s still a hallmark of our government that we can go to … they have to tell us when they’re meeting, we get to go to the meetings, we get to stand up and comment on what the government’s doing, and we get to see what they’re up to. And if it weren’t for Red Cross a lot of this stuff that’s going on would be done in secret and we’d never know about it. So, [00:17:00] why there’s not a statue of him at the capital, I don’t know.
Chris Cate: That’s great. I don’t really know that name very well, but I appreciate you bringing that up, because obviously the Sunshine of Florida is extremely important. When I talk to people in other states, I think people are sometimes shocked by how transparent Florida is although there still can be more work done. What is your take on the transparency in Florida? Do you feel like it’s in a good place, or how much farther can we get to kind of meet the needs while still having the right amount of [00:17:30] necessary privacy … I think sometimes the legislature, too much openness can kind of slow down the process in some cases.
Craig Pittman: Well, it may slow down the process, but remember, they’re spending our money. We ought to be able to see how they’re spending it. Right? If I’m giving somebody money I want to know what they’re doing with it. And I think that’s the whole basis behind the law is, if tax dollars are being spend then the taxpayers ought to be able to see how it’s being spent. There’s a movement [00:18:00] afoot in the legislature right now to shift the burden on Sunshine Law cases where it would make it a lot more expensive to pursue someone for trying to keep things secret. And that’s, once again, government people feeling like, “Well, we’re in office. We know best how to spend your money. Don’t ask us questions.” Which I’m pretty sure the taxpayers would have other opinions.
Here’s the other thing I love of course about the Sunshine Law – it’s thanks to the Sunshine Law we get access to all those great police reports that [00:18:30] provide us with so much fodder for the crazy stories that we write.
Chris Cate: Oh yeah.
Craig Pittman: So, the Sunshine Law has helped to make us this reputation of being the punch line state, but also it’s a great thing because thanks to the Sunshine Law we know a lot more about what our government’s doing that people in, say New York State, know. There, a lot of stuff if kept behind closed doors and people don’t know what their legislature and so forth is up to. In Florida, yeh, they still try and keep a lot of stuff secret, but [00:19:00] we get to see a lot of it too. And again, like I said, the whole basis of our government is, it depends on us having an informed electorate. If the electorate doesn’t know what’s going on, they’re not going to make the right decisions.
Chris Cate: Yeah, absolutely. Great answer.
Thank you so much for being on the show and taking time to talk to us. I’ll definitely be following you on Twitter for more stories, and hopefully you’ll have more books in the future to showcase all the different stories we might have missed.
Craig Pittman: Thanks!
Chris Cate: [00:19:30] Thanks for listening to the Fluent in Floridian podcast. If you aren’t subscribed to the podcast yet, I hope you’ll look us up and subscribe to the show on your favorite podcast app like Apple Podcast, Stitcher, or Google Play Music. If you leave a review that would be great too.
Thanks to my team at SalterMitchellPR for making this podcast possible. If you need help telling your Florida story, we’ve got you covered. We offer issues management, crisis communications, social media, advocacy, and media relations assistance. We also [00:20:00] have our own in-house creative and research teams. Look us up at saltermitchellpr.com for more information.
You can also find more information about the Fluent in Floridian podcast at fluentinfloridian.com. Have a great day.